NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 30, 2007

If you haven't noticed, the major presidential candidates -- Republican and Democratic -- are dodging one of the thorniest problems they'd face if elected: the huge budget costs of aging baby boomers, says columnist Robert J. Samuelson.

The aging of America is not just a population change or, as a budget problem, an accounting exercise.  It involves a profound transformation of the nature of government: commitments to the older population are slowly overwhelming other public goals; the national government is becoming mainly an income-transfer mechanism from younger workers to older retirees.

Consider the outlook:

  • From 2005 to 2030, the 65-and-over population will nearly double to 71 million; its share of the population will rise to 20 percent from 12 percent.
  • Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- programs that serve older people -- already exceed 40 percent of the $2.7 trillion federal budget.
  • By 2030, their share could hit 75 percent of the present budget, projects the Congressional Budget Office.

The 2030 projections are daunting:

  • To keep federal spending stable as a share of the economy would mean eliminating all defense spending and most other domestic programs (for research, homeland security, the environment, etc.).
  • To balance the budget with existing programs at their present economic shares would require, depending on assumptions, tax increases of 30 percent to 50 percent -- or budget deficits could quadruple.
  • A final possibility is to cut retirement benefits by increasing eligibility ages, means testing or trimming all payments.

Little wonder politicians stay silent, because these changes pose basic questions about government, says Samuelson.  What should it do?  For whom?  Why?  How big can it grow without weakening the economy?  Do gains in life expectancy and the well-being of the elderly justify significant changes in Social Security and Medicare?

Source: Robert J. Samuelson, "Samuelson: Paying for Aging Baby Boomers," Newsweek, August 6, 2007.


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